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A spotlight on: ‚Brain in Action‘

Meet Prof. J. Douglas Crawford and Scott Murdison as they discuss the partnership between this group of Canadian and German Neuroscientists funded by the NSERC CREATE and the DFG IRTG programs!

Group photo during the closing barbecue

The ‚Brain in Action‘ training program is a partnership between Canadian and German Neuroscientists funded by the NSERC CREATE program and the DFG IRTG program. Students in this program are doing research on the neural mechanisms underlying perception, cognition, and action in behaviors that apply to real world conditions. The program involves weekly virtual seminar meetings, trans-Atlantic exchanges of students for research projects, and instruction in soft-skills and alternative non-academic career paths. The faculty and students from all five Canadian (York, Western, Queens) and German (Giessen, Marburg) institutes recently met North of Toronto for their second annual research retreat, organized by the Canadian Director Doug Crawford (York University). This retreat involved keynote speaches, but primary revolved around the students: oral and poster presentations of their progress, meetings with their trans-Atlantic supervisory committees, and social events to help them ‚bond‘ with each other (like a typical Canadian barbecue at Doug’s house). Says Crawford: „What was most gratifying for us to observe was that by the end of this retreat, the students had fully integrated with each other, so it was hard to tell the Canadians from the Germans“.

Questions for Professor Crawford

J. Douglas Crawford, Canadian Director, 'Brain in Action' CREATE/IRTG Program, York University

Professor Crawford, you are the speaker of an International Research Training Group (IRTG) in Canada. How do your Ph.D. students benefit from this training?

Our students get a unique opportunity to work with not just one, but two internationally celebrated research groups: the Canadian Action and Perception Network (CAPnet) and the Marburg-Giessen Perception and Action Group. Importantly, they are enriched by the experience of traveling to German labs and being immersed in a different research and social culture. Finally, our students are also exposed to alternative non-academic career paths, which is a priority for our Government.

Within the scope of the IRTG you are working together with the German universities of Giessen and Marburg. How did this cooperation develop and how do you like working with your colleagues from Germany?

A number of investigators in CAPnet already had long term relationships and collaborations with the Marburg-Giessen group, with various shared meetings and common goals. More specifically, I began having discussions with the Marburg IRTG speaker (Dr. Frank Bremmer) about developing a joint training program at a Bavarian Autumn Neuroscience School in 2007. Those discussions led to Frank contacting me about the possibility of a partnered IRTG program about three years ago.

Through this program, Ph.D. students from Canada are given the opportunity to spend time working in Germany. What kind of experiences do they gain from their stay abroad?

First of all, the quality of the German labs is indisputable, and that was a big part of our motivation. Beyond that, through immersion in the life and research of top European labs, our students are gaining both specific skills and general life skills that will give them the confidence and long-term personal contacts to move through different research circles with ease. Science is a global enterprise that knows no borders; our students will learn this much earlier than my generation ever did.

What about the participants from Germany who come to Canada – what experiences do they take back home?

Well, besides a new appreciation for hockey and maple syrup, we believe that we offer certain unique perspectives and specific skills (e.g., the recent ‘Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation’ workshop that we recently organized for the IRTG students. However, what matters most is the same as what I said about our students: the life skills, the creation of long-term contacts with an international community, and the confidence that will make them more successful researchers on the global scale.

How would you assess the cooperation regarding research between Canada and Germany in general?

The research relationship between our countries is exceptional, which might explain why Canada has now become Germany’s biggest partner in the IRTG program. This relationship was illustrated well in our program through the level of integration we had between our faculty, and between our students, at our second annual retreat, which was held recently North of Toronto. I suspect there is something about living in a Northern country that makes people depend on each other and plan for the future…to harvest now for the long winter to come. At any rate, despite our differences, our ways of thinking are often very similar, which makes the administration of this IRTG project a pleasure.

Questions for Mr. Murdison

Scott Murdison during his research stay in Marburg, Germany

Mr. Murdison, you have lived in Marburg for sometime now. What have you enjoyed most about life and research in Germany?

(I’ve actually been in Marburg now for eight months)

This is a great question, and one I can’t do justice with any answer. During my time here I have learned quite a lot about not only German academic and scientific culture, but also of German culture as a whole, and I’ve certainly been enriched on a personal level by the experience. As far as research goes, I’ve learned plenty of new techniques that come with working in a new laboratory setting with new equipment, but, even with these differences, I actually find working in Professor Bremmer’s laboratory more similar than different when compared to my lab in Canada (under the supervision of Dr. Gunnar Blohm at the Centre for Neuroscience Studies (CNS) in Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario). These similarities are evident in the emphasis placed on meticulous experimental design combined with methodology-based critiques of results interpretations – two facets of scientific research that good science cannot ignore. As part of such a scientific community, I am very comfortable here in Germany.

Culturally speaking, I am also very comfortable here. Despite my Canadian background (and not knowing the language beyond “Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.”), I am always welcomed. In fact, my Canadian background is almost always the ice-breaker for any conversation. I suspect that, as part of Europe, Germans are often exposed to many different cultural backgrounds and see these differences not as barriers to fostering personal relationships, but instead as opportunities. Along these lines, the location of Germany within central Europe has provided ample opportunity for me to travel across Germany and Europe. While visiting everything from Munich to Berlin and from Paris to Prague, my eyes have been opened to the globalized nature of today’s world, while seeing how every city maintains its unique personality despite this. Perhaps attributable to distances between cities and countries, travel is much more a part of life here in Germany than it is in Canada, and this is reflected in the universally welcoming personalities of its people.

What is your advice to future participants wanting to spend a research period in Germany?

I have a couple pieces of advice: First, I highly recommend learning the language before coming to Germany. If you work in science it is generally ok if you don’t know more than a few simple phrases (as I do, and made it this long here), but I would think knowing German would open many more doors in the social sense as German is still the language of choice socially. Second, and most importantly, learn to love potatoes, if you somehow don’t already.

What do you miss most about Canada?

I mostly miss my friends and family (and cats). Spending time away from people you care about really makes you realize how much happens, and how much you miss, even in just 8 months. This has been partially balanced by the new friends that I’ve made and the new experiences I’ve had over here, but I am still looking forward to being home again.u